- Rich Cimini, ESPN Staff Writer
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FLORHAM PARK, N.J. -- When Kris Jenkins wrecked his right knee and missed virtually the entire 2005 season for the Carolina Panthers, he slipped into a deep funk, started drinking too much and let his weight get out of control. At 26, he contemplated retirement, thinking, "Screw this."
There could've been another pity party in October 2009, when Jenkins blew out his left knee, underwent season-ending surgery and faced several months of grueling rehab. This time, instead of wanting to get out, the New York Jets defensive tackle was pulled back in.
The down time was difficult -- Jenkins chokes up when he talks about how the injury prevented him from playing with his three small boys -- but he discovered something important during that period.
He discovered how much he loves the game. He recommitted himself, deciding he wants to play five more years.
Warning to offensive linemen on the Jets' schedule: The Smart Car-sized nose tackle expects to be better than ever.
"I'm not a big trash talker, but I promise this much: Anybody who lines up over me, they better bring a lunch because it's going to be a miserable 60 minutes," Jenkins said last week, sipping a sports drink in the Jets' cafeteria. "I'm bringing everything I can."
If Jenkins plays anywhere near his 2008 level -- his first season in New York -- the Jets' top-ranked defense will be stronger up the middle. Because they had him for only six games last season, hardly enough time to get comfortable in Rex Ryan's system, the Jets view Jenkins almost like a new acquisition.
"We're just as excited about having Kris back as we are about getting Antonio Cromartie and Brodney Pool," said defensive coordinator Mike Pettine, referring to two of their offseason imports on defense.
As a precaution, Jenkins won't participate Monday when the Jets hit the field for their first offseason practice session, but he hopes to be back with the gang next month at the mandatory minicamp. In the meantime, he will continue to battle his weight (390 pounds), hoping to shed at least 30 pounds by training camp -- roughly the weight of a cinder block. He has inspiration to get the pounds off. Remember, Ryan challenged Jenkins and Damien Woody to a weight-loss competition recently.
Don't doubt Jenkins, who fell behind in his conditioning because of his knee rehab. He has a fierce determination that belies his happy-go-lucky demeanor. As a kid, he suffered from a potentially debilitating foot condition -- fallen arches -- and was told by doctors that he'd never play high school sports. Undaunted, he wore supports in his shoes and played through the pain, crying himself to sleep every night as his father massaged his throbbing feet. That didn't stop him from earning a scholarship to Maryland. When he hears people compliment his quick feet, he laughs. If only they knew.
Turning 31 in August, which is like 35 in nose tackle years, Jenkins realizes he's on "my last leg." He says he doesn't want to "Brett Favre it until I'm 40 years old," so he knows time is precious. That immature, 26-year-old is long gone. What you see now is a family man, married in July 2009, who has learned to appreciate the present before it's too late.
"The [last] injury was a slap in the face," he said. "It lets you know you're not invincible. It's the first time in my career that a calm came over me, and I realized there's still stuff I want to get done."
An athlete senses his mortality when he hits the dreaded three-oh. All of a sudden he has to decline when the young son implores, "Daddy, come chase me." That's heavy stuff. As Jenkins said, "You think the worst of everything." Will I get back to 100 percent? Does the team still want me?
The Jets actually thrived without Jenkins, leading the league in several defensive categories. The success was great for the team, which advanced to the AFC Championship Game, but it was hell on Jenkins' psyche.
"He wasn't the same guy around the fellas," linebacker David Harris said. "He seemed kind of withdrawn."
Jenkins' absence was supposed to spell the demise of the Jets' defense, but role players such as Sione Pouha and Mike DeVito stepped into expanded roles and played well. No, they didn't have a lineman who drew constant double-teams, a la Jenkins, but Pettine & Co. cooked up schemes that identified favorable matchups.
"In a way, it helped us," linebacker Calvin Pace said of Jenkins' injury. "When you have a guy like that in the middle, it's a luxury and you depend on him. It made the other guys step up."
Now the big fella is back, giving the Jets a potentially disruptive force in the middle of the D. This time, in the 2.0 version of his Jets career, Jenkins wants to give back. He wants to become more of a team leader than before, and he wants to repay the Jets for rescuing him from Carolina, where things got stale.
"As far as I'm concerned, my career started when I got here," Jenkins said. "This is where I put it all in perspective. I was ready to shut it down after eight seasons. With [Eric] Mangini and Rex, I've been able to get my life back. I'm charged. I'm ready to go."
Good news for the Jets. Bad news for the players who have to block him.